Warren Beatty is a Hollywood legend, so there really isn’t a lot needed here in the way of introductions. Though, it’s worth nothing that until the new Rules Don’t Apply, Beatty hasn’t been in a movie in 15 years and hadn’t directed a movie since 1998’s Bulworth (which, as it turns out, was a movie before its time).
In Rules Don’t Apply – a film Beatty has been working on for decades – Beatty plays Howard Hughes. Beatty has long been (as he puts it) “amused” by Hughes’ exploits and wanted to put together a film that was both about Hughes and about the Hollywood of the late 1950s that Beatty remembers when he first broke through. Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich play characters who are both on Hughes’ payroll — she’s a starlet and he’s a driver. When a romance develops between them, they must hide it from the mysterious Hughes because such things are not allowed under their employer.
We spoke to Beatty about why it took so long for him to make his Howard Hughes film. Also, Beatty explains why Bulworth wasn’t so much a film about a Donald Trump-like candidate, but more of a Bernie Sanders-type. Also, Beatty shares a story about how he wanted Muhammad Ali to play the lead character in his 1978 film Heaven Can Wait, but eventually had to play it himself. (This is the thing about talking to Warren Beatty: He’s got an almost unlimited amount of stories and, if time allowed, I could have sat there all day listening to them.)
How are you doing?
I would be the last to know. How are you?
I spoke to your wife at an event last week and she said she was going to kill you if you didn’t finally make this movie.
You’re right. And as Nixon would have said, “That would have been wrong.”
Why did it take so long?
I would say the primary motivating factor was that for a long time I wanted to make a movie about the Hollywood I came to in 1958. And having grown up in a Southern Baptist atmosphere in Virginia, and then spending a little time in New York, and then coming out to California, I wanted to reflect on it and have some fun with it. I wouldn’t say I was “fascinated” by Howard Hughes. I would say I’ve always been amused by Howard Hughes. Because all of the stories I would hear about him made me laugh. I thought he was a good example of a symbol of business and capitalism.
And you never met him.
I never met him. But I like to think I met everybody who ever had met him, because I always got a big laugh out of all the stories I’d hear about him.
You’ve told the story about how you thought paparazzi were stalking you at a hotel and it turned out to be Howard Hughes’ security team.
Yeah, so I wanted to make a movie that would deal with the changes in American sexual attitudes with the rise of feminism in the 1950s and also the 1960s – which I think was a big influence in leading to what we’ve grown to called the sexual revolution of the 1960s. And the changes to the approach to sex and love and marriage and divorce and all the factors that came with it – to take a look at the not only the comical consequences of this puritanism, but also the sad consequences of it. And do a story about a young Baptist girl who comes at that time and a young Methodist boy who comes at that time and they are both under contract to a powerful, rich man who had his own problems. So that is how I’d describe the evolution of it.
Do you wish you’d have met him? Or would that have ruined the mystique or amusement?
What I would say is, if I had met him, and spent any time with him, it would have influenced me in a way that I didn’t want to be influenced by. To a large extent, history is fiction. I never met Clyde Barrow or Bugsy Siegel or John Reed – I’m talking about Bonnie and Clyde and Bugsy and Reds – and I scrunched lots of chronologies and I invented characters that were composites of several characters. I created a story of what I feel is my truthful interpretation of Bonnie and Clyde and Bugsy and John Reed.
Before you saw the movie, I had three quotes at the beginning of the movie. One was a quote from Henry Ford who said, “History is bunk.” And I had another quote of Winston Churchill who said, “History will be very kind to me because I intend to write it.” And one from Napoleon who said, “History is a set of lies agreed upon.”
I like the one you went with, though.
Well, I went with a Howard Hughes quote, yeah, “Never check an interesting fact.” Everything Howard does in this movie I had heard from someone that it had happened to. And I thought, well, these are interesting facts – don’t check them.
When you direct movies, you have these great casts. I rewatched Bulworth and that’s now an all-star cast, but it wasn’t in 1998. And now you cast Alden Ehrenreich right before he becomes Han Solo.
Well, there’s nothing that interests me more than actors. I think the whole process of acting has become more and more meaningful and more and more important in this technology I’d like to say “we are graced with,” but also we are saddled with. In every business, acting comes into it because everyone gets heard now and nobody has any privacy much anymore. So it’s good to be able to tell the truth, which is what acting is all about. And I think there are times when we are, let us say, more interested in… well, I won’t go into that.
You’ve said you think Bulworth hits more on what Bernie Sanders did than Trump. Rewatching it, there are a lot of similarities to Sanders.
Yeah, in terms of its politics and whatever you want to call it, economics, that it is what Bernie Sanders is saying. That thing that happens in what we call “spontaneity,” is something that entertains us and amuses us. And it perks up our interests and we see it. What we’re dealing with now is the increasing brevity of what we call our attention span. And we don’t allow ourselves to stay on subjects that we should understand better — because we may be entertained by some spontaneous expression or something trivial and entertaining that has nothing to do with serious subjects we should pay attention to. I think we haven’t been paying attention to certain subjects that I’m not going to get into because I’m pumping a movie. But, there are some subjects we are not paying a lot of attention to because we are more interested in trivia and being distracted.
You’ve always taken a long time between movies. Because of that, if someone approaches you on the street, can you tell by their age what movie they are going to bring up?
[Laughs] That’s a really good question. And I won’t be arrogant enough to answer it. Excuse me, I will conceal my arrogance by not answering.
If it were me, based on age, it’s either Dick Tracy or Heaven Can Wait – the latter one because it was on cable in the ‘80s on a nonstop loop.
Oh? Yeah, do you know what my original intention was with Heaven Can Wait?
I do not.
Muhammad Ali was a very good friend of mine. And I originally intended to do it with Ali and I originally intended to do it with Ali playing the part that I played. He was a brilliant, brilliant guy and a very lovable guy and a very funny guy. He wouldn’t quit fighting. I finally said to him, “If you don’t quit fighting, I’m going to change the character from a boxer to a football player and play it myself, “ because I played football as a kid. So the picture became quite different.
I’m now trying to picture that version.
In a way, I always think casting is destiny. If you say character is plot, then casting is character. So then casting becomes plot. So if I had Ali in Heaven Can Wait, it would have been quite different.
Your Dick Tracy movie is very unique. He’s not a superhero, but he’s in that vein and it’s so stylized and very much your vision. Do you think that’s missing from superhero movies today? The director’s vision?
Well, my answer to that would be … “Thank you.”